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Driver's License Bill May Be Law By Accident

Legislature: Measure was mistakenly sent to Davis, then pulled back after session ended. Its fate is unclear.

Times Staff Writer

October 25 2001

SACRAMENTO -- Due to a technical blunder, a bill allowing noncitizens to obtain driver's licenses in California--legislation that came under added scrutiny after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks--may have inadvertently become law without Gov. Gray Davis' signature.

The Assembly's chief parliamentarian, E. Dotson Wilson, pulled the hotly disputed measure by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) back from the governor's desk last month after it had cleared both houses of the Legislature.

Wilson said that the bill should not have been sent to Davis in the first place, and that he had the power to correct what he called a clerical error by retrieving it several days after the Legislature had adjourned for the year.

But in a legal opinion released this week, California's Legislative Counsel said unequivocally that bills can be removed from the governor's desk only after another formal action by the Assembly and Senate.

Because lawmakers were no longer in session and did not have an opportunity to reverse their original decision by casting another vote, "the earlier collective action of the houses in passing and presenting the enrolled bill to the governor could not be reversed," the opinion concluded.

What that means for the fate of the driver's license bill was not immediately clear. Normally, legislation becomes law if it sits on the governor's desk for 30 days without being signed or vetoed. Thus, having passed the Legislature Sept. 14, the measure has already become law, or has to be returned to Davis' desk so he can act on it if it was illegally removed.

However, no one in the Capitol is moving to correct the mistake. Cedillo said an attorney has called his office to argue that the legislation, AB 60, should now be law, raising the possibility of a lawsuit against the state. But Cedillo's office could not recall the lawyer's name or affiliation Wednesday and said it did not know whether he intended to sue.

"We have an agreement that we're going to get the bill done in January, and I'm fine with that," Cedillo said, explaining that he has no intention of pressing the issue.

Davis spokesman Roger Salazar said the governor's office had been assured by Assembly staffers that they had the authority to retrieve the bill.

"They told us they could pull it back, and they did it," Salazar said.

Either way, the snafu presents a problem for the cautious Davis, who had expressed concerns about the bill even before the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

The measure is the latest in an ongoing campaign by Cedillo, immigrant advocates and some of the state's top law enforcement officers to allow people to obtain a driver's license in California regardless of citizenship status. Cedillo's office estimates there are roughly 2 million immigrants driving in California without a license, which means they have not taken the driver's exam or obtained insurance.

Currently, motorists must possess a Social Security number to obtain a state driver's license. The bill would allow anyone who has a federal taxpayer number and is in the process of becoming a citizen to obtain a driver's license, as long as they could demonstrate residency in California.

Davis vetoed a similar Cedillo bill last year. This year, Cedillo once again navigated it through both houses of the Legislature--picking up strong bipartisan support for the first time.

Proponents say it is important for the safety of all Californians that authorities know the identity of everyone driving on the state's roads.

But revelations that some of the suspected hijackers had fake driver's licenses led the Davis administration to reconsider the measure and demand that Cedillo toughen up the identification requirements in his bill.

Cedillo agreed to work with Davis and decided not to put the governor in a politically difficult position by forcing him to sign or veto the measure after the terrorist strikes. The two politicians agreed that a new terrorism task force headed by Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca--a strong supporter of the bill before Sept. 11 who changed his mind after the attacks--would take a look at the measure. It would come up with a way to ensure the state could verify the identities of the immigrants it was giving licenses to while shielding them from deportation. Then Davis would sign the bill next year.

At least, that is what Cedillo said he tried to do.

Due to miscommunication between his clerks and Cedillo's staff, Wilson said the driver's license bill was mistakenly sent to the governor after it cleared the Legislature on Sept. 14, the last night of the session before lawmakers reconvene in January.

Within an hour, Wilson said, his staff realized the error. He said he then contacted the Legislative Counsel's office for advice on what to do--and was told he could pull the bill back under a rule that allows him to retrieve bills if a clerical error was made. It appeared to be a liberal interpretation of the rule, which is intended to let clerks pull bills back to correct drafting errors, and then place them back on the governor's desk.

"It was an honest mistake," Wilson said. "Under those circumstances, under the rules, the bill can be pulled back."

In an interview last week, Jeffrey A. DeLand, a chief deputy in the Legislative Counsel's office, acknowledged that the office informally advised Wilson that his action was legal. But officials in the Senate were not so sure, and requested their own formal opinion from the legislative lawyers. They came to a different conclusion.

DeLand said Wednesday that his office's advice to Wilson was on the narrow issue of whether clerks could take bills back to correct errors made in the enrollment process, and that the lawyers had not understood the full details of what Wilson's problem was.

Cedillo said this week that even if the bill is declared law, he will deliver on his word to Davis and work to address the governor's terrorism concerns.

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